1) MICHAEL, IF ONE CHARACTERISTIC IS CERTAIN ABOUT YOUR INCREDIBLE CAREER, IT HAS TO BE YOUR ABILITY TO COME UP WITH ASTONISHINGLY MEMORABLE THEMES. WHETHER IT’S A THEME/SONG FOR ‘RESIDENT EVIL’ OR FOR ADVERTISING, YOU CERTAINLY KNOW HOW CREATE ONE OF A KIND THEMES. CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?
Adonis, I think you’re flattering me way beyond credibility – but please don’t stop!
The first music I wrote as a kid were songs. And the first “serious” piece I wrote (about age 12) was a choral piece. So I’ve always had an affinity for melodies you can sing. [Composer] Ceiri Torjussen once told me that everything I write is based on folk-music, which I think is an astute observation. Even when I write really “out” music like Divination By Mirrors – a microtonal concert piece for bowed saw and strings – I always aim to make the theme hummable.
Admittedly, sometimes you have to be really good at humming.
When I was new to town, I was working as an Irish fiddle-player for Harry Gregson-Williams on a feature called ‘Veronica Guerin’ about a crusading journalist who gets killed by the bad guys at the climax of the film. (Yeah, you guessed it, a romantic comedy). Harry – one of the most brilliant and underrated composers in our field – had written the murder scene three times but Jerry Bruckheimer, who had fallen in love with something from Gladiator featuring duduk, kept rejecting it. In desperation, Harry asked me if I’d like to try it. I felt that the Irish version of the duduk is the uilleann pipes. So I wrote a very simple piece that began with a low fiddle (a viola, later replaced by a 5 string electric played by Hugh Marsh) playing a mournful tune, then, at the emotional climax, bringing in the pipes.
About a year later I had been hired by Bruckheimer films to score ‘Cold Case’. Jonathan Littman, who is the head of Bruckheimer television, was deeply involved with the music and spotted an early episode with me. He told me that he had heard a piece from one of Jerry’s films that would be perfect for its climactic scene. I asked which movie and he said it wasn’t out yet so I wouldn’t have heard it. Somehow sensing something, I asked again and he said, “Veronica Guerin.” I asked which scene. He looked at me funny and said, “the murder scene.” I told him I thought I could do something like that.
Interestingly, by the time I actually wrote it, it didn’t sound that much like Veronica Guerin at all. Here’s the scene from ‘Veronica Guerin’, and then what it evolved into on Cold Case:
BTW, here’s another tune I wrote that a lot of people can sing:
2) YOU ARE A COMPOSER AND YOU ARE ALSO A VIOLINIST WITH PHENOMENAL CHOPS. HOW DOES THAT AFFECT YOUR COMPOSITIONAL PROCESS?
There you go again… (Keep it up!)
I would have preferred to be a great singer. But I am mediocre (at best), so the violin became my voice. I love complex harmony and think it is one of my strong points. I am also fascinated by how rhythm works and the expressiveness of texture and timbre alone. But I will always be a melody guy at heart.
Here’s some fancy violin playing on a piece I heard in a dream, then woke up and recorded. I do not have absolute pitch – except when I dream. This is one where I not only “heard’ it in the correct key but had the fingering right:
3) HOW DID THE COLLABORATION WITH LORDE COME ABOUT? PRODUCING MUSIC FOR ‘THE HUNGER GAMES’ MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE A CHALLENGE!
My former assistant, now collaborator, Lucas Cantor, was out drinking one night and…The story does actually start that way but we’ll skip ahead to the part where we were asked by Selectracks to do a dark and dramatic version of the perky 80s hit Everybody Wants to Rule the World for a trailer. I think we got the job because it was July 4th weekend, it had to be done by Monday, and we had the unique virtue of being available. I slowed it down, changed the rhythm from triple to duple meter, and reharmonized it while Lucas made a slew of really cool sound design-y Booms and Blats. We were told by the people who hired us that it would be sung by a then-unknown young singer named Lorde, from New Zealand. We asked them to send us a reference so I could put it in the right key. They sent Royals, which would later become her first big hit. What we didn’t realize was that Royals is an outlier for Lorde – she sings it in her high “girly” voice – completely different from almost everything else she does.
My daughter, Mariana Barreto, is a fine singer and sang a reference lead for Lorde, plus all the background voices. We posted the track to Lorde in N.Z. and got it back the next morning. She had sung it down an octave! For a moment I panicked until I realized how cool it was starting on the effin’ E below middle C.
The trailer company didn’t want the track, so we thought it was dead. But a few months later, Lorde had a contractual obligation to deliver a song for The Hunger Games Catching Fire and somebody realized it was a perfect fit. After that it got licensed in a bunch of trailers including Assassin’s Creed Unity, probably my fave. Mariana’s background vocals are still there – I believe she is to this day the only person other than Lorde to sing on a Lorde track.
Here is a link to the Assassin’s Creed Unity trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwGNPtBX7Nk
Here is a 2 minute explanation of how it all came about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaTf-qr5fcE
If you still haven’t had enough dark and scary stuff, here is the theme song I did for Resident Evil VII Biohazard. Again Mariana singing all the group vocals, this time behind another New Zealander, the wonderful Jordan Reyne.
And if you want to hear what Mariana sounds like without Lorde, here is a link to the Samira & The Wind:
4) BESIDES YOUR FILM/TV WORK YOU ALSO COMPOSE CONCERT WORKS WITH SOME VERY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENTS! DOES THAT KIND OF WORK OFFER YOU MORE CREATIVE FLEXIBILITY?
When I finished the score for the Concerto for Pedal Steel Guitar and Orchestra, I sent it the conductor. He called me a couple of days later with “a Big Question”. “Oh, here it comes,” I thought. “He doesn’t like the bitonalism in the 3rd movement and wants me to simplify the harmony. Or maybe cut the slow second movement entirely.” I was so used to directors and producers telling me what my music should sound like I was completely caught off guard when his Big Question turned out to be, “Is the piccolo as written or 8va?”
As much as I love to score to picture and be part of a collaborative team, I never lose sight that it is the director or show runner’s vision and it is my job to help them achieve that. Concert music allows me to tell my own story.
Concerto for Pedal Steel Guitar and Orchestra:
I also must admit a fascination with mathematics and puzzles. The above mentioned Divination By Mirrors for Saw & Strings is based on the Fibonacci series and the Golden Mean:
And one based on Pi:
Finally, something that has caught my interest – cryptomusic. That is the encryption of words using just musical means. Here’s a link to an article about how cryptomusic is used in the ultra-hip-what-the-hell-is-it Cicada 3301 puzzle:
5) YOU OFTEN GET HIRED TO ORCHESTRATE OR PERFORM ON OTHER COMPOSERS’ PROJECTS SO OBVIOUSLY YOU BRING SOMETHING UNIQUE TO THE TABLE. HOWEVER, WHAT IS THE SECRET TO BEING HIRED REPEATEDLY?
Be useful !